Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, by Michael Dirda
I enjoyed this more than many other books of criticism I might have read. Dirda is a real enthusiast. I had to resist spending hundreds of pounds on Amazon buying up everything he mentions. He makes me want to read so many books.
Like many great critics, he has catholic taste. His PhD from Cornell in Medieval and Renaissance literature doesn't stop him enjoying crime, adventure, fantasy and horror stories.
Things you might learn about Conan Doyle include his intense interest and belief in Spiritualism, his dislike of Sherlock Holmes, and his chivalry. He once slapped his son for calling a woman ugly. And A Study in Scarlet wasn't much of a big hit when it was released.
The main technical achievement of Doyle's stories is what Dirda calls,'crisp narrative economy.' His ability to write irresistible page-turners was developed at a young age when he used to tell invented stories to his fellow school-boys, pausing at the appropriate moments to encourage bribes so that he would tell them what happened.
Like so many accomplished people, he always wanted to be the other thing. His books of history and Spiritualism were much more important to him and he thought reading things like Sherlock Holmes was a bit of a waste of time.
Dirda's short book covers all of Doyle's writing and career, the various Sherlockian societies and genres that have followed, puts Doyle's work within the genres it belongs to and created. He doesn't give away plot details, but he does make you want to explore the wider Doyle cannon as well as the wider genre being developed at this time. There was an astonishing range of stories produced between 1885 and 1925, which includes: Kidnapped, The Thirty Nine Steps, Kim, Dracula, Peter Pan, The War of the Worlds, The Wind in the Willows, Trent's Last Case, the list goes on...
The book is a blend of biography, literary history and memoir. It is short (you can read it in an evening or two if you want to), beautifully made and every page has a useful piece of information. The sections about Dirda discovering Holmes as a young boy and his early career as a journalist are nostalgic and engaging, but don't overtake the book. It's a lovely book about the art of reading as well (on which Doyle had opinions).
I would like Dirda next to write about Agatha Christie and the golden age of crime.